CAIRO: A committee appointed by Minister of Transportation Mohamed Mansour to investigate the cause of the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry disaster concluded its report yesterday, having found that a series of mistakes by the crew of the vessel, compounded by the inadequate actions of officials and the vessel owner both before and after the event, resulted in the death of over 1,000 passengers.
Mohamed Abdel-Fattah Shamma, the committee s chairman, describes the events immediately preceding the submersion of the vessel based on an analysis of the recovered voyage data recorder or black box that stored audio communication as well as various statistics such as speed and location.
The first mistake was made by the crewmember responsible to attend to the parking section of the vessel, where a fire started in trailers carrying goods.
Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel-Nabi, a member of the committee, says that the attendant was not available at the scene for an unknown reason and that this delayed the discovery of the fire by the crew.
As the flames spread, continues Shamma, the crew eventually discovered the fire and responded by attempting to put it out with large quantities of water.
Amidst this flurry of activity, the ropes that secured the goods to the trailers came undone, leaving the goods to fall to the floor.
Large volumes of water accumulated as the goods blocked the drainage pipes; the vessel swayed and the water concentrated on its right side.
The tilt was slight at first and the ferry s captain took no action to evacuate the ship.
The vessel continued to incline to a dangerous angle. At one point, according to Abdel-Nabi, when the inclination of the vessel reached 25 degrees, one crewmember warned the captain that the ship will sink, yet no action was taken.
It wasn t long before the ship did sink. The vessel tilted to the right to such an extent that it lost its balance entirely and finally submerged.
It is unclear why the captain did not allow the evacuation of passengers into lifeboats, since the evidence suggests that the lifeboats may have been functional. Abdel-Nabi explains that the ferry s lifeboats were inspected by Al-Salam, the company that owns the vessel, prior to the disaster. Sixty lifeboats were found to be defective during this inspection and were replaced.
The ferry, which carried the Panamanian flag, was on route from the Saudi port of Dubba to Safaga in Egypt when it sank in international waters. Neither Al-Salam nor the port authority in Safaga undertook emergency procedures when the vessel did not arrive at its destination on time. Abdel-Nabi says that the port authority is not responsible for taking action in such situations because ships are free to change course.
A parliamentary committee that investigated the incident previously accused Panamanian safety authorities of collaborating with Al-Salam in the production of false inspection documents.
The technical committee that produced the latest report had included representatives from Panama who subsequently withdrew from the committee. Shamma expressed regret for their withdrawal without explaining the circumstances, emphasizing that the committee s role was to investigate the causes of the accident without assigning blame.
Nevertheless, Abdel-Nabbi showed journalists an incomplete Passenger Ship Safety Certificate for the vessel issued by Panamanian authorities then went on to explain that there are degrees of responsibility (insinuating that more of the blame should be placed on the Panamanian side).
The safety certificate, although signed by an official, is incomplete in two respects: there is no indication whether the certificate permits long haul voyages or if the vessel is subject to any exemptions from international safety standards.
This was a shortcoming by Panamanian officials, but Abdel-Nabbi did not explain why both the Egyptian and Saudi officials allowed the vessel to set sail with an incomplete safety certificate.
The Italian ship classification society Registro Italiano Navale is another organization that was involved in the inspection of the vessel s hull and engine and is cited by Shamma as having contributed to the disaster.
The sinking of the ferry is Egypt s most fatal maritime accident. The fire was the direct cause of the incident, but a series of shortcomings accumulated to exacerbate the situation and delayed the rescue of the ship s 1,400 passengers and crew, resulting in the death of most of the individuals on board.